Saturday, January 26, 2013

Awesome Apps

I embrace my Amish/Mennonite heritage and if you know anything at all about these folk, you know we are a simple people. Land, home, and living by the work of our hands. So, as a child, I learned that being a Mennonite means never having to say you are out of batteries. No Lite Brite or Easy Bake oven for this girl. I didn't even get Mrs. Beasley, the doll most coveted by the 2nd grade girls at Harper Grade School, for Christmas.  Mrs. Beasley didn't run by batteries but she did have the vainglorious pull string which caused her to speak out of her pursed pink lips.  No, No! Not for me and my house. We had sturdy wooden toys, a great sandbox, a rugged tree house and tons of books. I was, I realize now, most undeniably blessed.

Blessed because I can live without my gadgets. I like the iPod, the iPad and the Kindle. I think the smartboards at school are great teaching tools. They are tools though- not accessories as I have been know to say in my parent voice on more than one occasion. So, before I give my list of great apps- a disclaimer. ( Don't you roll your eyes at me!)

I say power to the mother who recently gave her son a cell phone with a lengthy contract attached. My children accused me many years ago of having some control issues with all things electronic  because everything plugged in the wall or run by batteries at our house had a time limit. Last fall when my daughter came home for Thanksgiving she set her phone on the counter. Her friend who was a new guest to our house, looked at her and said, "Why did you put your phone there?" My daughter replied, "My mom likes us to check our phones in when we come." I had to excuse myself to the next room for a celebratory fist pump. Educational websites, educational TV and the coolest app around never replace snuggling on the couch and reading, making up silly games to play to practice math facts around the table, family game night, cooking together, or a walk in the woods. These things are the stuff of life. The apps are tools. Tools we need to use and then set aside.

 Here are a couple of my favorites:

For the young beginning reader:

Bob Books Magic #1 and #2.  Very good for kids who are just beginning to make letter/sound associations.
Montessori crosswords. This is is a fun one with cool animation and lots of choices for spelling and reading.
Montessori Concepts This app is good for the English Language Learner because it is visual and rich with vocabulary.

For Elementary math concepts:
Montessori counting board: Very elementary but helps to build number sense.
I love Math Doodles ( for artsy kids who might struggle with math)
and Motion Math. Motion Math is excellent for students who need to visualize fractions to understand them.
For Basic math facts I like POP Math because you can choose the operation and the table to practice skills and there is no advertising or silly non-math related games. So, if  a student just needs to practice their 8 facts in multiplication, you can set it to only give those facts. Kids love the "pop" sound it makes. Heck, I love the "pop" sound too.

One of my students introduced me to Math Bingo. It provides the chance to practice math facts and then to bungee snap bugs when you solve enough problems to get a  bingo. A little reinforcement goes a long way!

For those pesky states and capitols try the US Puzzle. You can select regions and learn states, capitols and locations. I am not good at these geographically challenging activities but my students are.

The app I use the most is Flashcards. I love this one because you can make your own sets of flashcards and quiz yourself on them. It is a great way to practice vocabulary words. I have recommended it many times. This is good for any age learner.

Finally for those of you who have young ones with short attention spans, I recommend the VisTimer app. It is a visual timer that you can set for a period of time and the big circle on the screen is erased as time elapses. So, if you want a wiggly one to study for a certain amount of time, set the visual timer and then give a break time when the time is up.

Finally for adults and older students. I love the Khan Academy app. If I need any help in any area of math, I go to this and search for a short video lesson on the math concept.

So, you won't bore us, get a thesaurus! Another great app for upper elementary students to adults- the Visual Thesaurus. I love the way it provides a definition for words as well as many synonyms. It produces a web with color coded dots for parts of speech. This is a great app!

The TED app is one of my favorites too. I listen to inspirational and informative talks often. 

Next blog post will feature resources for students with autism so I will talk more about my favorite TED talks and other appropriate apps then.  In similar fashion, I will feature more organizational tools, apps, and resources when I address the needs of learners with AD/HD in a future post.

Until then.... Live simply, breathe, and enjoy technology. But don't forget to set those tools aside frequently.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Wonder and Awe

"If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life."                                                                    Rachel Carson

I love learning. It's education, in its current standardized state, that I sometimes want to break up with.  When we are at our best, as educators and parents, we pass on little bits of passion that called to us in the cradle and beckoned us to grow, to discover, to feel, and to create. We heard the call and in those stripped down moments when we stand before whatever we possess that is our own canvas- the blank lesson plan page, the patient, the ipad, the blueprint, the storyboard, or the pile of dirt, we recall the voice that beckoned. Whatever it is calling us to bring our best to the task, let's honor our first love and our first "yes" to the call to follow our vocation.

As another assessment season looms large and gray and I spend day after day with my heroes, the students who bring their best creative selves to school each new morning and struggle to "color in the lines" when what they really want to do is design a new kind of animal, one with a green eye and a blue ear that can do homework and other magic tricks, I am reminded of why I became a teacher.

I was raised in a house with books upon books. Stacks, rows, piles of books. For every occasion, there was a book. A book for birthdays, bath time, bad boyfriends, learning to cook, learning sign language, picking a college and on and on. They were carefully chosen, almost always hardbound, smelling like a musty print. We loved books in our house, nestled them like infants, talked about them like friends. I read because I was limited to 30 minutes of TV a day and because everyone in my family read. I found friends, words, and feelings in those books. I still do.  I don't remember learning to read, I just read.

Now, years later, I work with kids who love learning but for whom the written word is a moving target. Text on a page often doesn't make sense and it can taunt them to tears. Recently, a young man was working on a test for his religion class. He looked at the word, resurrection, and gulped. I said to him, That's a long word." He looked at me and smiled. "Yes," he said, "you could get lost in that word."  He possibly has a deeper understanding of the meaning of resurrection than the writer of the textbook and I want to be the teacher that helps him know that. I want to free his spirit to rise every day to the meaning and promise of that word. Woe betide us if we put a check mark beside the question because a student couldn't read the word. Woe betide us if we don't ever let him see the joy that resurrection brings to our hearts and if it only remains an insurmountable mass of letters on a page.

So, what is the answer to those of us who want to help preserve wonder and joy in learning? We need to share what we discover every day. What we hear, read, draw or unearth that moves us is what makes us human and reaches our students. To give voice to what we have learned in the marketplace, the gym, the shopping center. We need to let verbs and nouns spring off the page and into our minds and hearts. Share with the children with whom you have influence what you have learned that day and ask, then listen, to what they have discovered. Tell them what made science, technology, cooking, advertising, math, reading, or accounting magic for you. Because once it was.. and it still can be. Let's reclaim wonder and awe.

In gratitude for my everyday heroes,

This entry is my first post in what I hope to  be a helpful resource to parents and teachers. In future posts: great apps for kids and parents, tips for studying, awesome resources for discovery learning and, most likely, the occasional rant about standardized testing practices. God Bless.